Climate change is upon us, and with it attendant health challenges, and the federal government is reaching out to tribes both for help and to provide assistance as never before. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in particular views tribes as allies in the race to adapt faster than the changes can unhinge our way of life.
As climate change’s effects become more apparent, and worsen, modern science is looking more and more to traditional knowledge to both guide responses and prevent or mitigate damage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is ever mindful of its mandate to protect the Earth that nourishes us, Administrator Gina McCarthy told ICTMN in July. Playing a key role in President Barack Obama’s Climate Change Action Plan, the agency is reaching out directly to American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.
Building technical capacity, providing resources and leaving the way open for tribes to regulate their own interactions with environmental issues are just some of the ways the EPA is seeking to address the issues caused by the changes in climate, McCarthy said.
“Exciting things are happening,” McCarthy told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview in July. She spoke enthusiastically of job-training programs and initiatives to build technical capacity, delivered by tribal communities and colleges.
The EPA is pushing to get scarce resources delivered to tribes “to help them build capacity and really have the ability to develop their own rules and regulations in ways that are appropriate for their ways and lands,” McCarthy said.
She acknowledged that it can be difficult during tough economic times to get tribes what they need.
“But the President has been very engaged in tribal issues and also been entirely committed to the issue of addressing climate change,” she said, citing the recent $5 million awarded to six groups to research tribal-specific environmental-health issues.
One of the grants went to the University of Massachusetts to measure indoor air quality for wood smoke exposure risks—an issue, she said, that is “unique to tribal areas, and one in which EPA has considerable expertise.”
McCarthy stressed the importance to the EPA of working with tribes.
“We’re just continuing, I hope, to show the tribes that … they’re a very unique partner of EPA and they deserve to know that EPA is meeting our trust responsibilities,” the Administrator said.
Working with American Indians has been an inspiration, McCarthy noted.
“They are groups of people who don’t have a lot for the most part, but they are always hopeful and always willing to engage,” McCarthy said. “And I can’t tell you what it means to EPA. I know we struggle to get them the resources that they deserve.”
And even when that doesn’t happen, “They always come to the table even when they don’t get their way,” McCarthy said. “Their love of the land and love of life is very similar to the way EPA thinks about these things.”
The goal, she said, is to utilize all available resources in this endeavor, to “recognize the traditional ecological knowledge that is available to us and that we have not always understood how to integrate into our policies.”
Overall the relationship between tribes and the EPA has been “a really strong one for a long time,” McCarthy said. It’s one that began 30 years ago when the first Indian policy was signed. An updated tribal engagement policy signed last summer “really is continuing to provide the signal that EPA is in partnership with them,” as both are stewards of the environment, she added.
“They clearly beat us to the punch,” McCarthy said of indigenous knowledge. “We’ve only been around 43 years—they’ve been around a lot longer.”
The EPA wants to do more than just “recognize it on paper,” McCarthy said. “We’re working really hard in our regions to recognize the specific challenges” and ensure “that we properly deliver on our trust responsibilities.”
She cited sovereignty as another factor.
“It’s important to us to recognize that we have a government-to-government relationship with the tribes,” McCarthy said.